In the world of exploitation cinema, the late Jesús Franco is without a doubt the king of erotic horror, a marriage of genres that's honestly more of a perfect match than meets eye. Despite many of his films really dwelling more on one rather the other — and it's pretty easy to guess which he tended to favor — the Spanish-born filmmaker was certainly one of the earliest, if not one of the first, to readily expose the underlying sensuality writhing just beneath the surface of our fears. Although not every movie in a career that spanned six decades, churning out a whopping near 200 titles, fit nicely within the horror genre, each of them does feature themes and elements which mar his flick as such.
Arguably, what his makes his movies interesting and a tiny bit entertaining are the little hints of genius, astuteness and intelligence very subtly contorting what is otherwise a seemingly easy to dismiss pile of perverse filth. But that's ultimately the beauty of the oft-ignored and tossed aside without a second thought exploitation pictures. Their brilliance is in their lewdness and obscenities, motion pictures without restraint made just outside the margins of civil society, almost as if deliberately made to mirror back it falseness and expose its cultural norms for the fiction they really are. It's with this same sense of freedom that Franco produced his some of his most fascinating material, such as 1973's 'Les démons.'
If it seems like I'm building up towards some high praise for this French-Portuguese production, nothing could be further from the truth. As much as I like and enjoy the movie, I'm not blind to its shoddiness. I'm simply trying to express that the plot is, at the very least and to some small extent, deserving of some applause. Set during the height of the Inquisition, the religious ruling class obsessively pursues acts of witchcraft with an iron fist, preferably one that's been sitting above a fire and hot enough to melt flesh. With permission by Lord Justice Jeffries (Cihangir Gaffari), the Lady de Winter (Karin Field) and Thomas Renfield (Alberto Dalbés) track down witches within their township with a sort of zealous, carnal pleasure that disturbingly weird but also explains a great deal.
And therein lies the rub, the small shimmer of cleverness to Franco's script. He doesn't care about the politics or morals behind the church's radical 14th century judicial system or whether the persecuted were innocent. The real story is on those claiming to uphold moral values and supposedly combating Satan's evil grasp on society. A young nun, Kathleen (Anne Libert), is accused of witchcraft and tortured while the Lady and Renfield watch with excitement, make-out, and later have sex. Her only real crime is being unafraid to tell others of her sexual dreams and having normal physical desires. Her younger sister, Margaret (Britt Nichols), who is also a nun and turns out to be a witch, leaves the convent and seduces whomever she has to in order to be reunited with her sister.
In between all this, Franco throws in some melodrama for good measure. Silly but mildly entertaining nonsense with Kathleen falling in love with painter Brian (Andrés Monales) but soon replaces him with Renfield, which is really odd. Then there is Howard Vernon as the Lady's amateur astrologist husband and who is also the father of the two witch sisters. Backstabbing, backdoor deals and corruption come in by the droves going into the second half, but the best part of 'Les démons' is decidedly the plot suggesting that those in power take a kind of sadomasochistic pleasure pursuing those they deem different. In his lewd display of perversions, Franco puts out there that perhaps the way to accept the torture of another human being is to also receive some sort of pleasure from it. Or maybe, he just wanted another excuse to show naked woman on screen.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'The Demons' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Redemption" label. Housed inside a normal blue keepcase, the Region A locked, BD50 disc goes straight to a static menu screen with music.
Despite coming from a new HD master that was struck from the original camera negative, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode offers a rather average-looking video transfer that won't likely impress.
Nonetheless, considering its age and history, the source appears to be in pretty good condition, showing strong definition and detailing in the buildings and surrounding foliage. Granted, a good portion of the video is generally on the soft side, but there's plenty of visible texture in the costumes, the interiors and the endless close-ups of bare flesh. The occasional white speck, spots of dirt in the edges of the 2.35:1 frame and scratches also make an appearance. Even though whites are clean and crisp, contrast is less-than-satisfying, but it's more than likely due to the aging elements, which have that yellowish tint that only comes from age. Except for reds and a few blues, colors are also affected, largely looking dull and faded. Blacks, on the other hand, are accurate and rich, though they tend to overwhelm the finer details. And finally, the transfer is smoother than it realistically should be since the film was originally shot on Techniscope stock, raising suspicions that noise reduction was used.
The real surprise in this Blu-ray edition of 'The Demons' is the French uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack. Of course, the ADR work and dubbing is noticeably bad, as spoken words rarely match lip movements. Nevertheless, that's an issue having to do with the source and the result of a limited budget. Besides, vocals are cleanly delivered and precise in the center, with only very few hints of hissing and noise in the background. Dynamic range, for the most part, also feels limited with a couple scenes distorting a tad in the higher frequencies, yet the soundtrack is stable and consistent for a majority of the runtime. The design doesn't come with much bass, if any at all, but it's adequate for a film of this vintage. Imaging and soundstage is the most impressive aspect of this lossless mix, especially when the music plays, generating a satisfyingly wide soundfield with a few good off-screen effects.
In its lewdness and shoddiness, there are small shimmers of brilliance, however small and overshadowed by its explicitness, which make Jess Franco's 'The Demons' an interesting watch. The Blu-ray arrives with strong audio and picture quality considering the source's age and history. Supplements are very light, but cult exploitation enthusiasts will love having it in their collection nonetheless.